Art, meaning, and communication

I’ve been having a think about art and creative output generally, and two things strike me, the first being that I like all sorts of things and I appreciate others even if I don’t like them. The difference? The first will likely be attractive in some way – a well written, zipping along story or an immediately engaging painting with striking imagery – but it might not be ‘good’. Simply put, it’s not ‘literary’ or ‘cutting edge’; it won’t rate any critical acclaim or win the Booker or the Turner Prize. But it might, depending on who promotes it, whose name is on it, and who’s up for buying into it. The second comprises that group of written or visual works I have to struggle to make sense of and, while I may find I appreciate them for the skill and tangible artistry, I may not like them much. The ones I do like tend to be those with a message I can derive from them. Banksy’s dystopian theme park, while not a thing I’d take home for my kitchen, were that at all feasible, had a clear message about the state of our country, the world, and our busted politics. Also I’m attracted to grunge. Other kinds of critically acclaimed work, Marina Abramovic I’m looking at you, leave me wondering what I’m supposed to take away from them.

For a good few decades, I’ve worked with adults with learning (intellectual) disabilities and if I learned anything at all from that, it’s this: it doesn’t matter how valuable or important your message, if the recipient doesn’t understand it, doesn’t get it, then you haven’t done your job. If art is a communication of some sort – and if it isn’t, then what is it? – then that communication has to be effective or it’s pointless. But so often, in both art and literature, we’re left as consumers to figure it out for ourselves. For the privileged few, and I’m one or I wouldn’t be here, there are interviews and documentaries, podcasts and video blogs about and with the creative and their work. We gain insight into the motivations that underpinned a piece of work or their body of work, and we hear from them directly the emotions that drove them. No resorting to cod psychology and third-hand speculative analysis; horse’s mouth.

But that’s a tiny percentage even of the work’s actual audience so what about everyone else? Are they meant to be excluded from this dialogue or were they simply not factored in? When I think of my clients struggling to read the TV listings but desperate to see Dr Who or Eastenders, knowing that these forms of art and entertainment mattered to them too, I feel bad about having written obscurely tangled tales in the past. Literary fiction requires you to work but if you have to work too hard, how can it possibly achieve what the writer hopes for it? Similarly, art work where ‘I know what I like’ too often sits alongside ‘my five year old could have done that’ and seems to mean ‘I don’t understand it, therefore it’s rubbish’. We lost those people because they hadn’t seen a documentary or heard us talk about how that work came about, and there was no hint of a meaning nearby to help them reframe their opinion.

I’m at the beginning of this course so I recognise the possible grandiosity of my next statement which is that, as a story-teller, I want to make art that says something, that has meaning and a message. I want to do that better than I did with many of my short stories because, what was that estimate for how long people look at a piece of art before moving on – 10 seconds? I have to give it a leg up, some hints as to what’s going on, enough so that even someone with literacy difficulties can get something out of it or why bother at all?

I’ve made myself a chart. A way of analysing my own work and also figuring out how to write short bios for pieces that need a bit of help. I still like pretty much as I like a ripping yarn with no literary credentials to speak of, but meaningful? Well, if that’s the intention and it’s not accessible then I’ve failed.




Last night I finished watching a documentary on Sean Scully, a large, somewhat opinionated man whose abstracts attract big money. He has a troubled past but nevertheless, he annoyed me with his arrogance and so I was taking his story in bite-sized doses. Then in the last twenty minutes, asked why he goes to his galleries and explains his paintings, he said this:

You can’t make something as arrogant as an abstract painting and then just say get on with it or you’re stupid.

Suddenly, whether it’s because he has a personal need to be understood – and that’s certainly possible because, when push comes to shove, who doesn’t? – or because, regretting his lack of involvement with his first son who was then killed in a car crash at age eighteen he found a new insight into the nature of communication with the arrival of his second, this resonates more than anything with my own concerns about the value of accessibility. It benefits all of us – maker and viewer/reader, it shows intellectual humility in that it requires us to take another’s perspective, and it forces us to consider ourselves as a part of the human circle not something separate and elevated from it. It might also force us not to be lazy makers with a paucity of ideas who transfer our own lack of clarity to the audience.

6 thoughts on “Art, meaning, and communication

  1. Mmm. I dunno. I can partly see where you are coming from but this leaves me with quite a few unanswered questions. As a viewer of art (and I know I am somewhat informed and part of the in-crowd) I can often take something from a work of art (whether I like it or not) that the artist didn’t necessarily intend. Also, if you aim take on all the responsibility as an artist to ‘explain’ your work and its message, might you not risk patronising the viewer, or even alienating them if they see it differently? Is there no space for ambiguity and subtlety in art? That need not be dishonest – life is rarely black and white – and it leaves space for the viewer to engage on their own terms. Getting the ‘my five year old could have done it’ crowd on board surely isn’t about producing art that will make them happy or that they can readily understand (though I am sure that not what you mean), but about stretching their appreciation of what art can be, or just accepting that they are not interested. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t know how you won’t drive yourself mad trying to be ‘inclusive’ and second-guessing what any particular viewer might need to appreciate your work and understand what you are trying to say. I agree that art is about communication – but isn’t it more like a conversation? Other people will bring their own ideas and views and that’s fine. But if your aim is to just try and convince them that what you are trying to say is the only way to see it (that probably overstates what you have said) then that is a bit one sided isn’t it? Sorry to go on a bit, and I may have got your point wrong and perhaps not explained myself well enough. Anyhow – good luck with it all! Janet x

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  2. Hello Janet, and congratulations on being my inaugural commenter! For me, inclusivity has been the driver for everything I’ve done for the last 30+ years so leaving people out (and I’ve done that with my writing because that was the ‘literary’ way) is actually quite alien and uncomfortable. It’s not so much about telling people how to think, it’s about giving them some clues as to what I was thinking when I wrote or made the thing in front of them then letting them do what they want with it. Leaving a gap feels somehow unhelpful, a bit like giving people a test and not telling them what it’s for or how it’s scored. It feels arrogant (Rorschach springs to mind) and a bit separatist. I think consumers of art (and literature) would benefit from just a little bit of insight as to how the thing came about, just as those of us in the know do when we seek out an interview or a documentary. Tiny remarks, not essays: ‘I love how the sea rises up and crashes down, its power and its colours; this sea is near Worthing on a stormy day,’ not a whole treatise on how to interpret it according to literary/art/ or any other kind of theory. That would be my approach. Probably will be if I’m going to be true to my principles 🙂

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  3. Yes Suzanne, you’ve definitely planted your finger right in the centre of the thing I couldn’t get my head round so far. I’ve spent sometime recently wondering if there is something wrong with me (impostor syndrome at the very least) when attending PV’s and everyone raving about images I cannot relate to in any form (even with explanations, lengthy written explanations accompanying them). I console myself with the ‘well you can’t like everything’ phrase and hopefully move on to something I can relate to.


    1. I wonder if there might be a touch of imposter syndrome in leaving art work unexplained in some (many?) cases – if you say nothing, no one can complain that it’s ‘nothing like’. I don’t rule out arrogance though; the superiority of the cognoscenti that leaves everyone else in the dust. I recall lecturers like that, bent on showing off to people who couldn’t challenge them and being scathing about colleagues who actually taught. There was once an experiment done at somewhere like LSE; a public lecture on a sociological topic of some kind delivered by a notable expert in the field and attended generally by students of that and related fields. Attendees were asked afterwards to rate the lecture and comment (long before social media so all paper-based), and it was largely considered to be the most ‘brilliant’ and ‘best’ ‘ever attended’. In fact the ‘expert’ was an actor and the lecture was gobbledygook – carefully crafted sentences that were grammatically correct but meaningless. The findings were said to show how easily fooled we are by an aura of credibility (also fame and celebrity in today’s world) such that we shelve our capacity to judge effectively. I think this is all the easier when the material itself requires subjective rather than objective appraisal and so we’re set up to ‘admire’ work in galleries because they’re in galleries and so they must be ‘valuable’, and if we can’t make sense of them, that’s our fault. Ditto books – jeepers but is there some elegantly written but utterly contentless prose out there masquerading as literature!


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